Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Absolute Birding

Serendib Scops Owl in a daytime roost
I guided a 14-day Absolute Birding trip with three birders from Scotland from 30 November–13 December, 2009. My clients were Val Wilson, who was the main organiser, and her birding buddies, Pauline Blair and David Clugston—all sharp birders. They were strictly focussed on watching birds and carried no cameras with the aim of photographing them. This gave them more opportunities to actually look for new birds, which boosted our trip list. Our final tally stood at 246 species seen including all thirty-three endemics currently recognised.

The endemic Serendib Scops Owl above, seen at a daytime roost at Sinharaja rain forest, was voted unanimously as the bird of the trip. There was no drama with other tough endemics: Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, and all of them afforded great views.

I got two lifers during this trip in the form of Isabelline Wheater at Yala and Hume’s Whitethroat at Bundala - both on the same day.

We had four Brown Wood Owls on this trip: one at Sinharaja at dusk, and three at a daytime roost at Surrey Estate, Welimada. The Sri Lanka Frogmouth below was seen at a daytime roost at Sinharaja, quite close to the track.

Our top mammalian highlight was this Leopard, seen resting in a tree at the Yala National Park. After finding it like that, we waited until it got up to move on; and I got this record shot then.

Coming back to birds, we had a pair of White-naped Woodpeckers and rare migrants: White Wagtail and Citrine Wagtail at Udawalawe National Park. A Watercock gave good views at Pannegamuwa tank. A lone Eurasian Wigeon mixed with a party of Lesser Whistling-ducks was picked up by Dave at Deberawewa tank at Tissa. This bird is a rare visitor to southern Sri Lanka, and was the first time it has been reported during my southern birding tours. Dave also did extremely well to pick a distant Pomarine Scua and Brown Booby while sea-watching off Negombo on the last day. A nesting pair of Hill Munias was observed at Hakgala Botanical Gardens, where we also had brilliant views of the sought-after Himalayan special, Kashmir Flycatcher.

Several dragonflies were also seen on this trip. This Foggy-winged Twister obliged long enough to afford a photo opportunity at Tanamalwila (pronounced in Sinhala as Thanamalwila).

Foggy-winged Twister
The Indian Peafowls were quite busy courting and we had plenty of displaying males, like this raunchy one, at Yala.

Indian Peafowl
This Curlew Sandpiper in summer plumage clearly stood out among its cousins in their paler grey winter drab plumages.

Curlew Sandpiper

The Blue Admiral

The Blue Admiral
This was one of those butterflies that traumatised me as a lad, for when I saw it for the first time in an abandoned cocoa grove near Kandy, I refused to believe my eyes. It had been the last day of the school term (a half-holiday). I came home, dropped my satchel, took up my net and ran down to the cocoa grove to taste of the freedom. After about ten minutes of adjusting my eyes to the gloom, I noticed something silvery-blue and unfamiliar, lazily executing tight little circles in a rather wide beam of afternoon sunlight. Suddenly, I no longer heard the cicadas or the birds: just the noise of my racing heartbeat. I found myself making extravagant promises to my Creator in return for a fair chance at netting this magically unexpected, undreamed-of, butterfly. I watched it pirouette and glide, then a few quick flicks of the wings into the shadows where it was lost briefly and then back into the sunbeam for more pirouetting and flow gliding, like a tiny dancer in an enormous spot light. The slightest movement from me and it would flick away into the shadows. This went on for an agonising thirty or forty minutes, until it ventured too close to its solitary but very appreciative audience. How I bagged it, I know not, but I did. The specimen, a male is still with me somewhat rubbed, but precious beyond anything that mere lucre can buy.

—Bernard d’Abrera in ‘The Butterflies of Ceylon’ published in 1998.

This was photographed in the Knuckles Wilderness in Dec, 2008 while guiding Richard and Ann Bishop, Kenya on a 14-day Absolute Birding tour.
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